Chapter 1 - Seeking shelter

Winter in Thorn Valley!

It was indeed a momentous occasion, for the simple reason that it was the first many of its citizens were experiencing here. In the months leading up to its onset, there was some uncertainty, in that this would prove to be the definitive test to prove whether or not these creatures—the Rats of Thorn Valley, they informally called themselves—could truly make it on their own. They were the products of human experimentation that boosted their intelligence and lifespans, enabling them to escape captivity, after which they set out to make their way in the world. Needing a place to settle as their numbers grew, the Original 22—the twenty rats and the two mice that escaped with them—at first chose a lifestyle that involved using a human farmer’s resources to sustain them. They gradually found that this did not sit too well with them morally, and so they soon initiated a plan that would lessen the chance of human discovery and enable them to live self-sufficiently as well. The Plan succeeded despite some opposition which led to the loss of the Rats’ beloved leader.

In their new environs, they were succeeding exceptionally well, growing their own food and overall providing well for everyone, as well as Nicodemus had envisioned. But winter was soon to be upon them, and all knew it could prove to be a challenge. The previous winter, the advance crew headed up by their chief engineer Arthur was busily preparing this new colony for everyone else, building everything up from scratch. Their experience had been invaluable as a test of how well they could survive out here, not only far away from human civilization but during a more difficult season as well. The fact that they had made it through relatively unscathed proved an enormous morale booster for this year’s winter.

Still, nothing was being taken for granted. Though winters in this part of the country were, by and large, relatively mild compared to areas further north, colder temperatures accompanied by snow and ice, possibly more serious than last winter, were to be anticipated. Accordingly, plenty of supplies were being laid in for winter. Their efforts were vindicated when a snowstorm, greater than any in recent memory, dumped some five inches of snow on Thorn Valley in the space of a single day in January.

It had begun in midday, with wet, heavy flakes quickly accumulating, the kind that typically accompany temperatures that hover around the freezing mark. While there was still daylight, children—and many adults as well—seized the opportunity. In short order, the area in front of the Rat colony—the “front yard”—became dotted with igloos and snow sculptures of every kind. Two sloping areas were quickly designated as sledding runs, and though there were specially-built sleds and toboggans made for that express purpose, they were quickly becoming in-demand items and in short supply as more and more sought to join in the fun. So many made do with their own cobbled-together versions built of wood scrap and other materials like carpet remnant. As darkness fell, many were reluctant to come back inside and had to be literally dragged and carried. Guard Rats made sure everyone was rounded up and accounted for, for the usual reasons of extra caution after dark; but they also reminded everyone that in days to come, there was a possibility of predators making their way back into the area in search of food if these weather conditions persisted.

For certain of the community’s citizens—the “minority community” of Mice—that change meant a bit of difficulty in their comings and goings between the Rat colony and their own homes. Johnathan Brisby and his family, and Mr. Ages, who headed up the medical department, lived in quarters separate from the Rats, as was their decisions upon joining the community. It was an arrangement they’d always felt comfortable with, but it was now proving to have its downside. The Brisbys—Johnathan, his wife Madeline, and their children Teresa, Martin, Timothy, Cynthia, Lyndon and Shawna—had already spent most of the day inside the Rat community when the storm hit, and so they opted to stay overnight, sleeping over with friends. The radio broadcasts that they routinely monitored had forecast the storm to pass overnight with clear and sunny conditions prevailing the next day, so the going should be easier then.

On the other hand, Mr. Ages—despite warnings from his friends and coworkers—opted to brave the elements and slog through the approximately one hundred twenty feet’s worth of snow and slush that lay between the Rats’ southernmost service entrance and his own home. When word got out, two of the Guard volunteered to see him home safely—though not without trying to persuade him to stay overnight. Still he insisted, and they didn’t question why; though there was a bit of grumbling on their return trip.

Mr. Ages’s quarters were, by the standards of most in the Thorn Valley community, spartan and utilitarian, mainly for sleeping, bathing and occasionally reading and writing. There was only one actual room, furnished with a bed, a small sofa, a table, a desk; two chairs and an ottoman; a walk-in shower and three oil lamps. There had been many days, in his first few months here, when he’d used it very little, spending most of his time at the Rat colony, with many a night spent sleeping in his office. It was no secret how much the new medical department was his pride and joy; and the fact that it was now well underway and running smoothly provided a handy enough explanation to his friends and coworkers as to why he wasn’t staying there nearly so late lately, though he’d never really said as much.

It was entirely possible, though, that even if they were to ask him, he wouldn’t be able to give a concrete answer. Oh, it was true that, lately, he had neglected his own quarters to a degree and that a bit of housecleaning was in order. He had always seen to it that the medical department would be well organized, neat and clean; to the point where his private quarters were, by contrast, left wanting for the same degree of attention.

So now, armed with a broom, feather duster and dustpan, he occupied himself with this task, feeling a degree of contentment simply by keeping busy. Yet, once he’d done as much as he reasonably could and prepared to go to sleep, he felt a sense of disquietude creep upon him, especially after he’d settled into bed. It was, in fact, a feeling that had been building, growing within him for some time now, much as he’d been loath to admit it; and if he were pressed, even by Johnathan, who was the closest to being his confidant, he’d most likely reply that he was fine, that nothing was amiss.

For certain, his service to this community with his knowledge and skills in medicine and chemistry made him feel fulfilled and that he was contributing to the well-being of everyone here. But if he were inclined to articulate this “creeping” feeling in the broadest terms, he would say that his profession, for all it made him feel content, just wasn’t enough, not quite; there should be more to his life. Perhaps he even knew, deep down, precisely what it was. But, largely because he hadn’t discussed the matter with anyone, now he once again dismissed it as “silly nonsense,” pushing back this feeling as best he could, as he had so often recently.

And yet…there were those conversations with Johnathan—at least three of them since he and his family joined this community—in which he would subject his friend to a near-lecture about “carrying on the legacy,” which he felt was important since the two of them were the only two “advanced” mice to survive what they’d come to call the Airshaft Massacre, that tragic event that came in the midst of their escape from NIMH, that had claimed the lives of those nine fellow captive mice—though, of course, Madeline had long been one of them as well, having been made so apparently by sole virtue of being Johnathan’s mate. The theory had been put forth that if Ages were to take a natural female as his mate, he might be able to influence her in the same way—all the more reason, Johnathan argued, that he shouldn’t put off finding a mate forever.

Ages dismissed such talk outright the first time; as much as he knew Johnathan was making logical sense, he would simply say that such a life was not for him. In later conversations, he would be less dismissive but still not inclined to agree wholeheartedly. He would not tell Johnathan outright to stop pestering him over the matter, though; somehow, he just couldn’t find it within him. Still, he would continue to tell himself that it was not a matter that had any real relevance with him.

And yet, these conversations with Johnathan weren’t the only factors contributing to this feeling. After becoming reacquainted with Madeline and the Brisby children—especially the children, while Madeline and the others were off searching for Johnathan—Ages found himself actually enjoying their company to a degree. And on the occasion of their grand reunion, he found within him a degree of vicarious pleasure; and perhaps even a touch of envy, though he would never admit it out loud, even to Johnathan.

So it was that this night, he again dismissed this feeling that was so out of place, that had no business occupying his thoughts when there were more important matters calling for his attention these days. Right now, the most important one was a good night’s sleep; so he breathed in deep, head settling against his pillow, preparing his mind and body for slumber.

Just as it was coming upon him, it was abruptly interrupted. His eyes snapped open, his regular breathing giving way to a snort. He growled to himself; was that a knock on his front door, or a half-formed dream? He half-sat up, listening for any out-of-place sound, and lay back down; but no sooner did head meet pillow when it sounded again. He was definitely about to receive a visitor, and at the most inopportune moment—as if there were an opportune moment with him, some might add.

At one time, he might have dismissed any visitor with a shouted “Go away!” even before knowing his or her identity; but, given the time of day, this one was unusual enough that he needed to satisfy his curiosity, if nothing else. So he got up out of bed, grumbling, putting on a robe, ready to give somebody a piece of his mind. Another knock sounded on his way to the door. “All right, I’m coming!” he replied irritably as he lit the oil lamp next to the door.

Upon opening it, he half-expected to see Johnathan, or his wife or one of his children; but though it was a mouse, it was one not immediately familiar to him. She looked up at him, huddled on all fours at his stoop, shivering, eyes pleading.

“M-Mister Ages? Is-is it you?”

“Er…yes, I am he. What do you want?” He said this knowing that her business with him had to be the most basic need for shelter.

“I-I got lost in the snow. I’ve been wandering around ever since, I…I don’t know how to get home. Please…please help me.” She sounded almost ready to break down crying.

Ages’s first inclination was to tell her that his neighbors the Brisbys lived a short ways from there and that they’d be better able to accommodate her; and then he remembered that none of them were home, the entire family having opted to stay overnight at the Rat Colony. So instead, he offered his hand to her.

“Come…come in, girl. You must be freezing out here.”

Some might be surprised at such a show of generosity; indeed, he would later question it himself. But those who knew him best were aware of his compassion for his fellow beings; he’d already gained a still-growing reputation among the natural mice in the area, treating them as he would the colony residents, and would not turn away anyone outright if there was a need for his services.

She looked at him with immense relief and gratitude as she straightened, taking his hand and letting him lead her inside. He quickly closed the door and steered her toward the sofa, telling her to stand by a moment while he brought her a blanket. He wrapped her in it and sat her down on the sofa, feeling her continue to tremble. He put on another lamp and brought her a cup of leftover tea.

“Here, drink this. It’s only lukewarm, but it’ll help.”

“Oh, thank you, Mr. Ages. Thank you so much.” She took a sip.

“You’re…you’re welcome. Now I’ll need to look at your hands and feet. You could have caught some serious frostbite out there.”

He began his examination with her feet, which were still trembling. She took another sip and said, “I…don’t suppose you’d remember me…”

He looked up in surprise at the words’ familiarity. “Yes, I…believe I do. I’m afraid your name slips my mind right now, but I was with the Brisbys a month or so ago when we met.”

“Y-yes. My name’s Alma. You w-were going around to other m-mice in the valley…just to-to meet them, to show that…you wanted to be good neighbors.” She took another sip of tea.

“Ah, yes, that’s right.” Ages recalled the day trip—essentially a “goodwill tour”—that they’d taken around a wide swath of territory at Thorn Valley’s north end, ingratiating themselves to the locals, hoping to foster improved relations, something the Rats hadn’t made their greatest priority. He’d gone along with some reluctance but had to admit afterwards that it was good to be out in different surroundings and that the tour was overall worthwhile.

Alma continued to sit quietly, sipping her tea, looking upon Ages appreciatively as he continued his examination mostly in silence.

“Well, Alma,” he announced at length, “it looks like you found shelter in the nick of time. Your hands and feet should be better if you…just keep them wrapped up and warm overnight.” He felt a measure of reluctance just at saying this, knowing that it would mean he wouldn’t be sending her out again, to the Brisby home or otherwise.

“Oh, that’s wonderful. Thank you so much, sir. May I stay here tonight?” Alma drew her feet up onto the sofa cushions and tucked them underneath her, her shivering visibly lessened. She looked as one all too happy to settle in right there.

“Er…yes, I suppose that’s best. It certainly wouldn’t be worth your while to go back outside now.” Ages sighed, unable to shake a feeling of regret, for all he took her in voluntarily. After all, she was about to catch her death out there; what else could he do? “All right then, Alma. I guess, if you don’t mind sleeping right here on the sofa…”

“No, of course not. Thank you.” Alma sighed as she rubbed her feet gently. She yawned, already feeling much more relaxed, and lay down on her side. “Oh, it’s so nice and warm in here,” she said, sighing contentedly.

Ages reacted in kind, raising a small laugh from her. He felt himself blush, then collected himself. “Well…if you’re comfortable, then…I-I’ll be getting back to bed myself. Good night, Alma.” He nodded courteously to her before putting out both lamps and returning to his bed. He removed his robe and settled in, welcoming the returning warmth after drawing the covers over himself.

Sleep eluded him for a while longer, though, owing largely to the presence of his unexpected guest, even though she’d uttered hardly a sound since they’d said their goodnights. Not since he’d shared quarters with Johnathan had anyone stayed under the same roof with him overnight. But he also couldn’t help wondering why he’d been so willing to welcome a relative stranger into his home. He tried to brush aside the thought. She needed shelter, and you took her in. It’s as simple as that. Now let’s get some sleep.

Soon he was nodding off again; and in short order, he was again jolted back to wakefulness. This time it took the form not of an urgent rapping upon his door, but of something even more unexpected: someone was pulling aside the covers of his bed!

He turned his head quickly to see Alma at his bedside. “I-I’m still feeling…a bit chilly, Mr. Ages. May I get into bed with you? I’m sorry, I should have asked first…”

He was so taken aback that he was speechless, barely able to utter a sound, even to save his life; and Alma, mistaking his silence for his unqualified consent, climbed right in.

“Thank you so much, sir. I know I’ll warm right up this way.” She snuggled right up to his back, pressing her body against his, sighing contentedly as she placed an arm around his torso.

Finding his voice, Ages stammered, “N-now see here, girl. I…I didn’t…”

“Yes, Mr. Ages?”

“Uhbm…er…n-nothing. Good…good night, Alma…again.”

“Good night,” she said, sounding completely relaxed. “Thanks again.”

Ages, however, didn’t quite share the feeling. He lay there on his side, body tense and starting to sweat, utterly at a loss for what to say or do. On one hand he felt like berating her for her presumptuousness and ordering her to get back to the sofa; but on the other, his more practical side was telling him that she still needed to recover from her ordeal and that sharing his body heat with her would help speed the process—a perfectly logical plan. But actually allowing her to share his bed? Not since the Wandering Days following the escape of himself and the other Original 22 from NIMH had he done so; since then, it was never…necessary. Was it?

He continued to feel as if he were right on the verge of ordering her, or at least politely asking her to return to the sofa. Yet, as he continued to wrestle with how to deal with this strange and awkward situation, he realized that he was actually starting to feel…comfortable. But how could he, when she just barged in without asking? But then, she did ask, actually, didn’t she? And he never told her no, did he?

Eventually he resigned himself to spending the rest of the night like this. At this point, he couldn’t just kick her out, could he? Especially as he realized that she’d already fallen asleep while pressed up against him. And could he rightfully deny, in all truthfulness, that, in spite of himself…it actually felt good having her here in his bed. She had a very pleasant scent, her warm exhaled breath on his back felt almost comforting, and her body’s warmth was actually helping him to relax. It felt wrong, out of place, nothing that he ever would have planned for, and yet…there was, paradoxically, something right, appropriate about it as well. Sooner than he would have ever believed if he lived to be a thousand, he again began slipping into slumber; and abruptly, awareness of this strange situation caused him to snap awake again. Am I actually getting comfortable like this? he asked himself. And yet again, he began slipping under, sleep overtaking him completely this time.

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